I have always been outspoken and strongly opinionated – even from a very young age. Mummy dinosaur has many stories to tell of this somewhat unaccountably moral and open minded small person.
aged 5, asking “What’s a homosexual?” and on receiving the reply “well, some men like women, and some men like men…” responding casually “oh, it means gay.”
aged 6, writing “you are killing me” and “cough cough” and “please don’t die” and drawing skulls and crossbones all over cigarette boxes in felt tip pen (decades before the passive smoking link was proved)
aged 7, taking a taxi driver to task for a racist comment
aged 9, seeing this (quite frankly TERRIFYING) public information advert on the television and very seriously telling Grannie dinosaur to be careful because “there’s a new disease called ignorance”.
I am sure there are many more.
I’ve never been entirely sure where my fervent belief in social justice came from, or my habit of challenging anyone I thought saying anything wrong or unfair, even when perhaps not safe or sensible to do so.
My early years were spent in North Devon in a small town where until the mid eighties there was one black person. Literally, one. He wore a top hat and ran a second hand record store in the older part of town. When I was taken on my first trip to London in the early 80s I was warned that there would be lots of people of all different colours, and that I shouldn’t stare at them. This isn’t that long ago – just a few decades. There were so few non-white people in my home town that my Mum was concerned I would stare, or comment, or say something embarrassing in my typically outspoken way. But even then, at the age of 6, started I’d already somehow – even growing up in a tiny English country town with no discernible diversity whatsoever – assimilated the idea that people that weren’t white were people too and should probably be treated just the same as I treated everyone else.
We moved away from Devon when I was 11, to a very middle-class small city in Hertfordshire. Very different from the little town I’d grown up in, but still very white, very middle class. It was the first time I started to hear overtly racist things being said; by classmates (picking up opinions from their parents?) and felt unable to say anything back. The first few times I did I was earmarked as a “weirdo” and “different” and a “poor backwards country girl who used to live in a cowpat”. Fortunately I changed schools at some point (long story) and got to do my GCSEs as a much more diverse school. And that’s how I discovered Mr D.
You know how people often talk about that one teacher who inspired them and who they will never forget? Mine is Mr D. He was hilarious, terrifying, intelligent and dedicated. There’d be no “hands up” to answer his question in his class – he’d pick the person to answer. And he had an uncanny ability to pick the one person who wasn’t really listening to his question, or who had been giggling, or (in my case) had temporarily zoned out watching a squirrel out of the window.
He was one of those people who didn’t just teach you the facts, but made you think about them. He wanted this group of young teenagers not to just know what happened in the USA in the 1850s, but understand how those events shaped the USA now. He encouraged us to take an interest in the modern politics of countries, and try to draw a line between now and the political shape of their past.
He was a fervent ‘leftie’ – perhaps one of the first (to my knowledge) that I’d met and a staunch anti-monarchist (which made our lessons on the Wars of the Roses interesting). He was occasionally derailable – we knew what topics made him particularly passionate and inclined to go off topic, and there would occasionally be competitions to see who could get Mr D on a rant. He was passionate about his subject – and if he ever heard people moaning about learning about “dead people and stuff that happened ages ago, why is it even relevant” he would deliver a rousing speech about the importance of learning from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
We left him little cakes or jokes on the blackboard (for the younger of you out there, before there were whiteboards, there were blackboards. You wrote on them with chalk. It’s really not that long ago…) and it was all done with a huge amount of affection because we loved Mr D. We loved his passion for his subject and how he made us think and question. Of course at the time we might not have known we loved it, and we might not have understood why he was our favourite teacher. But he was. The sole reason I wanted to do History A-level was because of Mr D.
And so in this environment, from a big old anti-monarchist David Starkey hating leftie, we learned about the 2 World Wars and Hitler’s rise to power. From a man who had a great skill in getting teenagers to draw modern parallels, from a man whose belief about his subject was that it taught us how to have a better future from learning the mistakes of our past, we learned about the Stock Exchange collapse in America, the depression, the deepening economic crisis in Germany and in Europe. The after effects of rationing in the UK. The fear of businessmen that they would lose everything. The fear of the ordinary people of poverty. The blaming of this by an enigmatic leader on a marginalised group of people. The slow and steady shift of countries in Europe to the far right. How in the space of just 4 years, building on disaffection, fear and economic hardship, the Nazi party went from having 12 seats to 230.
Is this sounding familiar to you at all?
As teenagers we simply couldn’t understand how this could happen. HOW could people vote for a party that were clearly, well, kind of evil? How could people not see the potential ramifications of voting for the Nazi party? Even with Mr D’s careful pulling together of the threads for us, showing us how the Nazi party gained power by being the ‘people’s friend’, we still struggled. How did people NOT SEE IT?
A trip for those of us going on to do History A-Level to Berlin was, on one level, a big old jolly of 16 year olds away from their parents in a youth hostel. On another, it was coming face to face with history. Much of the Berlin wall was still standing when we went – a visual scar of the country’s recent past. We visited concentration camps. For a child who had defended the rights of non-white non-straight people from the age of 5 this was shocking; it was one thing to read about it in a book in a classroom; but to stand in a room and be told ‘this is where they gassed Jews’ and feel the weight of the past press upon you in such a visceral way is quite another.
We learned about the different classification of ‘prisoners’ – for it wasn’t just the Jewish people the Nazis condemned. Homosexuals, drug users, Roma, the mentally ill, anarchists and ordinary Germans who protested and resisted – all were codified, demonised, locked away.
It’s was a sobering experience and many of us grew up considerably on that trip. It made the teenage me more determined to stand up for injustice, more determined to challenge prejudice when I saw it, particularly as it was starting to dawn on me that as a middle class white person I had a voice that was often denied to others. It was many years later that I learnt the term ‘white privilege’ but my early understanding of the concept began in these history lessons; began with Mr D.
You will understand, then, that the swing to the right that has taken place not just in the UK but across Europe makes me feel sick to my stomach. I was taught to draw parallels from our history; to see patterns of history repeating, to learn from it so that it never happens again. And what I am seeing scares the crap out of me. How can people be making this same mistake? In the centenary year of World War 1 the UK and Europe are taking a big step to the right. Let’s do the time warp again.
Ukip have been a shambles. From blaming bad weather on gays to a disaster of a ‘carnival’ to their worrying and outright dangerous views on women, their press has been dreadful. Their campaign dogged by disaster. In some areas the local MPs didn’t even try. And yet.
If I think about it I feel sick. Angry. I want to cry and throw things. I want to understand why we are doing this as a country, as a continent. Why are we sleepwalking into Fascism? Did no one else pay attention in school?
We’re walking into trouble through ignorance. And it’s terrifying.